Sunday, December 26, 2010

Global Ideals

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2005)

The United Nations is a rather battered organization now, but like others I still view it with much idealism and (no matter how frequently this is challenged) with much optimism. I’ve often said it’s an organization I’d like to work for, although someone who knows about it told me the bureaucracy is stifling. I remember when I went on the tour of the New York headquarters, maybe twelve years ago. It was exciting enough, but even then the place seemed musty and dated. This shouldn’t matter in itself, except one suspects the air of creeping dilapidation doesn’t contribute to its overall effectiveness.

Sorrow Or Anger

The recent scandals have been depressing, and it’s difficult to know whether to respond with sorrow or anger. If we knew the full extent of the UN’s institutional challenges, it’s possible the place might seem practically unfixable. But we’re not going to get anything better, so I wish we could find a truer consensus for the UN as a true strategic outgrowth of national interests rather than as some kind of quasi-self contained problem child. As in so much else, the US’ bloated sense of preeminence stands as a major obstacle to this, especially as the UN has played so maladroitly into its hands. Still, Bush’s nominating John Bolton as Ambassador to the UN seems (even by his standards) like a particularly contemptuous step, just one step above declining to nominate anyone at all (or else sending the White House dog).

Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter is the first picture to have been granted permission to film inside the UN headquarters, and presumably its general good intentions toward the organization helped close the deal. Nicole Kidman plays an interpreter who overhears talk of a plot to assassinate an African leader, during his pending visit to address the General Assembly. Sean Penn is the Secret Service cop assigned to look into it. He soon finds out that Kidman has an active background as a former radical, which makes her credibility and possible motives suspect. On the other hand, although still reeling from his wife’s recent death, he finds himself drawn to her. The film is restrained though on this point.

Actually it’s a restrained film on every point. Pollack has made many famous movies, and he obviously possesses a certain cool intelligence, but his films don’t seem marked by any great artistic passion or instinct or any particular feeling for the human condition. His most recent work (Havana, The Firm, Sabrina, Random Hearts) seems entirely academic, and the increasing gaps between films since his Oscar for Out Of Africa don’t seem to indicate much more than creative stasis. Still, The Interpreter seemed to hold greater promise than any of these, because of the material’s inherent political potential. The fictional African country is closely based on Zimbabwe. The UN’s lack of any meaningful voice in Zimbabwe isn’t yet an emblematic shame on the level of its failures in Bosnia or Rwanda, but history may yet bring it there.

Zimbabwe’s Tragedy

As The Interpreter’s parallel back-story suggests, the slow metamorphosis of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe from visionary freedom fighter to despotic, complacent oppressor is one of the saddest contemporary case histories. Someone who knows the country told me the mood on the streets is now broken and decrepit where it used to be vibrant. Mugabe denies his own people every opportunity – perhaps he hasn’t instituted a defined genocide, but his economic and psychological savagery is absolute. On the day I write this article, a British paper reports that a famine watch group issued a red alert, anticipating a third of the population will need food aid this year; but Mugabe rejects most external attempts at assistance. Still, his past credentials and some misplaced notion of solidarity keep a substantial international block in his back pocket (South Africa’s President Mbeki is a consistent cheerleader), and Zimbabwe’s lack of any military or geopolitical threat to the West means it’s nowhere near Iran on the “Axis of Evil radar.

Far from doing something meaningful about this, the UN recently appointed Zimbabwe to its United Nations Human Rights Commission. Even the US spoke out against that one. Zimbabwe’s ambassador said in response that “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones” (actually, he did have a point). As the cliché goes, it would all be funny if it wasn’t so serious. Initially, I thought The Interpreter might contain some good commentary on all this – a promising early scene parodies the US’ pathetic resistance to the International Criminal Court (to which, in the movie, France wishes to commit the dictator for trial). But this all peters out, and soon it’s all about plot mechanics.

Those mechanics, as far as I can tell, only make limited sense, and most reviews of the film have pointed out various implausibilities. I wouldn't mind any of these if they were in the service of something even mildly subversive or probing, but the ultimate shallowness of The Interpreter’s ambitions is severely disappointing. Although it seems to support the premise of the UN (or at least a fuzzy notion of it, exemplified by Kidman’s statement that “love and compassion are the better way”), the movie actually depicts its ultimate positive outcome as the consequence of petty conspiracy and skullduggery, thus pretty effectively undermining itself.

Squandered Promise

It’s also disappointing how completely the film allows Nicole Kidman (who in any event, with her inherent coolness, hardly conveys much political fire) to serve as the repository for resentment at Mugabe’s squandered promise. This isn’t at all uncommon of course. Just a few weeks ago I reviewed John Boorman’s In My Country, which made similar use of Juliette Binoche in dramatizing the hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But at least Boorman’s film evidenced some sense of the limitations of its own approach. The Interpreter seems utterly comfortable with its parameters, and although I try in these reviews not to cite too often the insularity of “Hollywood,” Pollack’s film sure seems like something conceived in the study overlooking the private tennis court (albeit with a Democratic fundraiser to come later in the evening).

When the dictator enters New York, he comments on how the streets looked during his last visit. “Things change,” says an aide. “They diminish,” says the leader, and his later actions seem to suggest his awareness of his own failure. Is it ungenerous to suggest that this grants Mugabe more humanity than he deserves? To me this seems like the final failure of a bland film; one that even cursory awareness shows to be just a meek scratch across the surface of its vital subject.

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